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Heirs of the Sumerians: Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians and Assyrians

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  • 0:07 Recap of Sumerian Civilization
  • 1:34 Babylonians
  • 4:23 Hittites
  • 5:23 Mittani
  • 6:08 Assyrians
  • 8:00 Bronze Age Collapse
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture covers the history of Mesopotamia from the disintegration of the Sumerian Empire to the great Bronze Age collapse. We'll explore the destructive force of the Elamites and the Hittites as well as the imperial ambitions of the Babylonians, the Mittani and the Assyrians.

Heirs of the Sumerians

By the mid-20th century BCE, Sumerian Civilization had already been through a lot:

  • It had been co opted by the Akkadians
  • It had been conquered by the Guti.
  • It had thrown off its invaders, and started a new Sumerian Empire with Ur as its capitol

Then, in 1950 BCE, a new group of people entered the scene, the Elamites, a fierce people living to the southeast of Mesopotamia. The Elamites, like the Guti before them, seem to have been more interested in pillaging than empire building. It would take another thousand years before the Elamites would mount their own bid for control of the empire. Nevertheless, the Elamites destroyed the power structure that held the Sumerian empire together. After a thousand years, the Sumero-Akkadian empire was dead at last.

Babylon was the religious center of southern Mesopotamia
Babylon

The Babylonians

Then around 1830, the city of Babylon took advantage of the distraction of these two power players and established itself as an independent kingdom. Yet Babylon was small compared to the older kingdoms around it. Surrounded by enemies, Babylon extended its power slowly. It would take the better part of a century before a Babylonian leader was brazen enough to attempt to recreate the grand Mesopotamian empire. That leader's name was Hammurabi.

Hammurabi inherited a central, but rather unimportant kingdom of Mesopotamia. He led a well disciplined fighting force to the conquest of his Amorite rivals, Isin and Larsa, as well as the already ancient cities of Ur and Uruk. By the time he was done, Babylon would be the seat of an empire stretching for thousands of miles. But Hammurabi was not sated with mere conquest.

He wanted to build an empire to last. Like Ur Nammu, he established a centralized bureaucracy with taxes. He rebuilt old imperial roads and cleared out the canals, allowing trade to form once again. Like all Babylonian kings, Hammurabi was a member of the priestly caste and was likely considered an avatar of the city's patron deity, Marduk. During his reign, Hammurabi established Babylon as the holiest of Mesopotamian cities, where all future emperors would need to be crowned. Yet perhaps Hammurabi's greatest accomplishment was his Code of Laws. It was likely inspired by the code of Ur Nammu, the law of the last great Mesopotamian empire.

The code of Ur Nammu was the law of the last great Mesopotamian empire
Code of Ur Nammu Laws

While the Babylonians seem to have perfected Sumerian designs for civilization, they show little signs of invention in this period. This copying of Sumerian accomplishments would typify all the empires that attempted to gain control of Mesopotamia. Indeed, the relics of Babylonian culture could not be easily discerned from those of the Sumerians for hundreds of years. They built their palaces, temples and Ziggurats all along Sumerian lines, adorning them with frescoes, glazed tiles and stone steles.

Like the Sumerians, the Babylonians built with mud brick. Some believe this is because they suffered from a lack of stone. Yet it is interesting to note that the later Assyrians, who had plenty of stone at their disposal, continued to build with mud brick after their rise to power. This suggests that the choice of mud brick might have been a cultural appeal to an old source of legitimacy as much as it was a material necessity. To appear legitimate, every culture to come would try to replicate the achievements of the Sumerians.

The Hittites

Babylon would continue to be the seat of the Mesopotamian empire until its sack around 1600 BCE by the Hittites. The Hittites were a warlike people, from the city of Hattusa in Anatolia. They were big fans of chariots, which they used to great effect. They were also excellent metalworkers. They were also perhaps the first empire to see the value of iron. The Hittites sacked Babylon, tearing apart the Babylonian Empire, but made no attempt to establish themselves there, preferring to remain in Anatolia.

They borrowed writing along with many forms of art and architecture from the Sumerians. Yet, as an empire separate from the Sumerians, and ancient in its own right, the Hittites also developed their own architecture. Their most noteworthy contributions are the bit-hilani, a sort of pillared front porch, and the double gateway with corbeled arch - the best surviving example of which is the Lion Gate at Hattusa, the ancient Hittite capital. Hittites raids of the Babylonian Empire plunged the region into chaos, allowing new groups to emerge.

The bit-hilani is a type of pillared front porch found in Hittite architecture
Bit-Hilani

The Mittani

The foremost of these were the Hurrians, also known as the Mittani. They filled the vacuum left by the Hittites, building an empire in northern Mesopotamia. Pressing east into the lands of the Assyrians and west into Anatolia.

The Mittani left very little behind in terms of material culture; almost everything we know of them comes from references from other cultures. Still their empire survived until around 1350 BCE, when a battle of succession left them vulnerable to a new Hittite assault. This weakened the Mittani enough for the Assyrians to overthrow their masters and create their own empire.

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